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4 tips for team building in distributed remote teams

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“Remote teams”, ie distributed teams, are the trend. So how do you deal with coordination and management in teams spread over several locations?

So-called “remote teams”, meaning distributed teams that work together from different locations and maybe even different time zones, are in vogue: Many companies want to take advantage of the opportunity to attract talent for their company worldwide or to take advantage of local labor cost advantages. Recent studies show that employees appreciate to have at least the opportunity to work remotely from home or from co-working spaces.

This trend also brings new challenges for teams. So how do you deal with coordination and management in teams spread over several locations?

The good news in advance:

Google's internal study found that distributed remote teams can in principle be just as successful as teams in the same location. At the same time, Google shares their best practices in a Playbook . There are a number of things to consider for communication and productivity to work in the remote team. Interestingly enough, psychological factors like psychological safety, team cohesion and trust play an important role for remote teams as well.

Here are our tips on how your remote team can develop their potential:

Tip 1: Remote-first means over-communicating

Communication has to be rethought in remote teams. Managers are probably already familiar with the concept of over-communication, because many management readings suggest that the corporate strategy cannot be "over-communicated". This concept of over-communicating is also relevant for remote teams.

Example: A team is generally located at one location and only a few team members work remotely from somewhere else. A two-tier society threatens here, which can undermine the team spirit: A substantial part of the communication takes place face-to-face in the office and as a remote team member you regularly receive last information. Namely, only when the next video call (e.g. Daily or Weekly) is due or someone writes this information down (e.g. via email, Slack, Confluence, Trello / Jira tickets and so on).

Therefore the recommendation: A large part of the formal as well as informal communication should be proactively stored online for everyone according to the rule of thumb "Remote First". Even if it sometimes feels as if the information is already known anyway, you should make the effort to digitally record every decision in order to make the derivation comprehensible to third parties.

Once again in remote teams, there is no overcommunication. And even if: It's worth it!

Tip 2: adapted routines in everyday life

In remote teams in particular, as a team member, manager or Scrum Master, you have to put great emphasis on creating a framework for regular exchange. This does not mean a monthly update, but a much closer exchange that makes the team feeling possible. 

A best practice that, in our experience, works well: simply map Dailys online in text form. Every day, every team member starts writing their most important topics and time availability for the day in a chat or slack channel. This makes it transparent for everyone who is currently working on what. Nevertheless, everyone has the freedom not to have to dial into a video conference for the Daily at 9:00 am. This form of daily is particularly advantageous for different time zones.

The daily in chat format should, for example, be supplemented with a weekly in video call format. So there is a round in which all team members can see each other (at least digitally). This video call should deliberately not degenerate into a formal status update, because it would then have no effect on team building. Maybe even use the appointment for a lunch together to underline the informal character & #8211; yes, a lunch together in front of the screen is better than no lunch together. This lunch can then be used with open exchange formats such as “Brown bag”/“Lunch & Learn" get connected.

Tip 3: Plan room for informal exchange with Check-Ins & Co.

The opportunities for informal exchange, such as in the kitchen at the coffee machine, at the football table, etc., do not exist with distributed remote teams. In order to create the necessary trust between team members from different locations, space must be actively given. This way, team members can get to know each other on a human level and get closer.

In all efforts for efficient meetings, you should therefore not refrain from reserving at least the first 5 minutes for a casual exchange as an "icebreaker" before starting with the actual topic of the meeting. 

Depending on the group, in addition to the open exchange, a check-in can also be offered as best practice, in which everyone has their say in turn. Whoever comes last in the appointment starts with the check-in. The following questions may arise for the check-in round:

  • On a scale from 1 (= miserable) to 10 (= super) how are you doing right now? Why?
  • What would have to happen to be at 10 tonight?

Answering these questions can also apply to private matters - that should be left to everyone. Of course, you can vary the check-in questions from meeting to meeting. It might be important to point out that the questions should not become too personal if this could be uncomfortable for individual team members.

A nice example that underlines the importance: A few weeks ago we were at a customer's retro and it turned out that a person who answered the check-in scale with 3 did not sleep all night and was plagued by a headache was. This information is of course crucial in order to be able to classify and consider the behavior of the person.

Tip 4: Team building through retrospectives as best practice

This is probably the most important tip for everyone retrospectives (or “Retros” for short) in their remote teams. Because especially when a large part of the communication takes place in digital text form, there is an increased risk of misunderstandings, which can endanger trust and team spirit.

This risk from the lack of face-to-face communication cannot be avoided. It is therefore all the more important to create a framework in which each team member has the opportunity to place his observations and perceptions about the collaboration, to compare them in the team and to mitigate conflict potential. The retrospective has become an established best practice for this.

An example for clarification

Tom made a proposal to solve a technical problem in a Jira ticket (method A). Erwin read the proposal, agreed with another colleague and came to the conclusion that method B would be more sensible as an alternative solution and replied briefly and crisply in the Jira ticket "We have now done it according to method B." Tom has read the message and wonders if his suggestion was even seriously discussed. Since the short answer bothers him, he wants to express his displeasure about it in the upcoming retro. 

When Erwin hears about it in the Retro, he is surprised and explains that the proposal was very seriously discussed, briefly explains the reasons for it and apologizes that he did not coordinate the procedure with Tom in advance. Tom is satisfied and can understand the decision. The learning: In the near future we should either pick up the listener when making such decisions, or at least record the course of the discussion digitally.

In fact, many conflicts or dissatisfactions are not much more complex than this simple example and all that is needed for prevention is an open feedback culture and the space to address the issues.

Remote rocks!

In conclusion, it can be said that remote teams are not fundamentally less successful than on-site teams. Team building and trust, in particular, require increased value and existing routines and habits to be adapted.
Finally, you have to take into account the higher risk of misunderstandings. From our point of view, the introduction of team retrospectives seems inevitable in distributed remote teams. You can find out whether our retro tool can help here.

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